Family Heirlooms is a very good short novel by Brazilian writer Zulmira Ribeiro Tavares translated from the Portuguese by Daniel Hahn into a lively, humorous, and cynical English narrative. The main character Maria Braulia Munhoz is a senior woman living in an apartment in the prosperous financial district of Sao Paulo. Every morning, she carefully applies makeup creating a “social” face even though she has few visitors. All her adult life, Maria’s well-guarded persona has been reserved for her own mirror gazing and perhaps for her extra-marital paramours. When she was a young attractive woman, marriage was proposed by suitor Judge Munhoz with the offering of a gift, a supposedly valuable and rare pigeon-blood ruby. After some slight-of-hand maneuvers with the beautiful ruby, the Judge manages to rise from the limited status of his own family to the welcoming financial embrace of Maria’s wealthy family. Apparently, he has added an important heirloom, the ruby, to the upper social structure of his in-laws. Unfortunately, the ruby is an imitation that owes its beauty in part to an inclusion of rutile needles, flaws in the deep red stone.
After many years of marriage and professional work have passed, Judge Munhoz becomes ill and worries about thoughts that have been at the back of his mind for a long time. His conclusion about the value of his personal history and the history of Sao Paulo society can be summarized with “two fatal little words: dolo—deception; and decoro—decorum.” As a judge, of course, Munhoz has to have irreproachable decorum. But as a private person, in order to meet his personal needs, he has to be deceptive, to keep certain things hidden that would damage his status as a public figure. Munhoz is deceptive in many ways and the pigeon-blood ruby is the main symbol of his deceit. He must have faith in the delusion that only he and his devious Spanish jeweler know it is a fake. This thought is delusional because people always know more than the deceiver believes. The observers choose to accept the decorum of Judge Munhoz because it allows them justify their own partly hidden deceptions. Of course, an outside observer cannot know all of another’s hidden actions and motives. For example, Judge Munhoz cannot know all of his wife’s secret thoughts and values related to the possession of the ruby even though he does know something about her infidelity. After all, the Judge is not faithful to his marriage vows either.
This is a little gem of a novel that will allow readers to explore their own life of deception and decorum. We display an outward moral code that all can see and a partially hidden value system that others may suspect. More importantly, we all have an inner core of personal wealth available only to ourselves. This inner core is impermeable to outsiders, but is built on a foundation of family heirlooms that includes not only relics but also rules of behaviors and ideas of worth. It is our own unique and invaluable treasure trove.